The Council on Casinos recently released a report titled “Why Casinos Matter” which highlights, among other things, the now pervasive presence of gambling in American life. Regional casinos, rather than resort casinos, are the norm: “In the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, nearly every adult now lives within a short drive of a casino.” And, the report argues, even if one has no moral objection to casinos specifically or gambling in general, it is impossible to ignore the effect of these institutions on the behavior of the American public.

While the report helps illuminate many elements of the recent casino boom, of particular interest is its description of the spread of slot machines. Far more than any other gambling game, slot machines are driving the success of casinos: “In 2013, the percentage of casinos’ total gambling revenue deriving from slot machines is estimated at 62 to 80 percent, with racinos (racetrack casinos) getting 90 percent of their take from slots.” A modern slot machine is a “sophisticated computer” fine-tuned to encourage a specific psychological response—the desire to keep gambling.

Besides the detrimental effect slot machines have on many economically vulnerable Americans, their pervasiveness also indicates a certain flattening out of American vices. There is no flair in slot machines; there is none of the excitement of a horse race, or the human element of a poker game. Caleb Stegall identified the growth of slot machines as a result of the “ culture of pornography ”—a culture that affirms a utilitarian calculus of sin: “It is sin carefully processed, packaged, marketed, shopped for, and stored away in the cupboard, ready to satisfy any late night craving we may have. The attraction of the midnight snack is that it perpetuates the illusion of free and responsible adulthood while all the while allowing us to submit completely to the slavery of desire.”

Sins like passionate extramarital affairs, Stegall argues, at least “affirm us as spiritual beings in all of our fallenness,” whereas the prevalence of pornography speaks to a spiritless and materialist understanding of love, pleasure, and sex. Dmitri Karamazov’s zealous sin is more human than the apathetic immorality bespoken by a slot machine. But we live in a culture that struggles to see that “no victim” sins usually harm the actor himself. And in the case of gambling addiction, that active part of the actor decreases dramatically. Our sins, in a certain sense, have become less human.

While casino revenues will continue to tempt states to allow widespread slot machines, perhaps “Why Casinos Matter” will serve as a warning to policymakers hoping for a short-term pay-off at the expense of long-term prosperity.

Articles by J. David Nolan

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